The Historicity of the Synoptic Gospels

St. Luke with his symbol, the winged ox on the Cathedral Portal at Sienna.


I've been working hard on this week's exploration of Sunday's Scripture and reflecting on what's being said. This week we move away from the Gospel of Mark, with whom we have been travelling for a number of weeks, and take up Luke's narrative. We haven't had Luke since I started writing my reflections so I have written a short survey of the book as is my habit.

Obviously, this sets one's mind racing in various directions. I remain fascinated with Scripture, especially it's extraordinary depth, and part of my prelim' notes how Luke shapes his account. I thought it might be useful to post a concise examination of how this theological shaping (which is evident in each of the Synoptics) effects the historic veracity of the Gospels. 

It can be demonstrated that the Evangelists carefully chose their material and that they have varied their accounts to accentuate themes relevant to challenges each one encountered separately. For Matthew, a Jewish Christian writing for a Jewish audience, for Mark a Jew writing for a gentile audience in Rome and for Luke, a gentile writing for the gentiles. 

If then, each of the Evangelists altered their source material, the question must be asked, how can we trust any of what they say?

All the New Testament authors clearly presuppose their readers’ knowledge of a common tradition (paradosis) that flows from the earthly Jesus. There are two components evident in this tradition; “preaching” or proclamation (kērygma) about God’s actions in the world through Jesus, and teaching (didachē) that presents ethical norms for right conduct by followers of Jesus. The Gospel is kērygma and it is kērygma that gives the Church its origin. Didachē flows from it. In his book Remember Jesus Christ, Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher to the papal household, demonstrates how faith only arises from what is heard, in the presence of kērygma:
“How are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher?” -Romans 10:14. 
Cantalamessa points out that this passage refers literally to “someone who proclaims the kērygma (chōris kēryssontos)”. This idea is consonant with the teaching of Joseph Ratzinger in his book An Introduction to Christianity in which he writes of faith as a product of hearing the word.

The integrity of the transmission of historic information contained in the Gospels is eloquently dealt with by Best’s examination of Mark; Mark: The Gospel as Story. Whilst noting the theological ordering of the Gospel, Best explains that it would be wrong to suggest that Mark “felt himself free to alter or create as he liked” (Page 12) as the evidence points to the contrary. Best suggests that this is clearly manifest in the way Mark leaves detail unaltered when it would have suited his purpose to change it. For example in the first exorcism the demon confesses Jesus as ‘the Holy One of God’ (Mk. 1:24); elsewhere demons confess him as ‘Son of God’ and in 3:11f. where Mark himself is composing freely in order to summarise the activity of Jesus he has them use this title. This is important because for Mark ‘Son of God’ is a title of confession and thus has a special significance. Yet he still does not alter ‘the Holy One of God’ to ‘Son of God’ even though the change would have been slight and easily made. Best also details several other similar examples that demonstrate Mark’s realisation of his responsibility as guardian of an inherited tradition (cf. pp.'s 12-13).

It seems to me that this tension between story teller and historian can be understood if one considers that Mark was transferring the oral tradition to a written form. The fact that many were very familiar with what Mark was preserving in written form would have influenced Mark’s accuracy. It may not have been Mark’s primary intention in writing his book to accurately preserve history, but in the course of carrying out his aims it was his practice to carefully preserve the history because a people accustomed to the stories told about Jesus would be concerned about accuracy. The same holds true for all the Evangelists.

The accuracy of oral tradition is another important consideration when examining the veracity of the Gospels and something which is often called into question in our modern world of computers and dictation machines.

The fact is that it was not uncommon for people to be able to accurately remember long discourses (like those of Our Lord for example) stories and poems and be able to repeat them word for word. This is one issue addressed by Jerome Betram in his book People of the Gospel.

Paragraph 19 of Dei Verbum draws together all these facts about the Gospels and directly confronts the more recent trend in Biblical scholarship which has perhaps been pioneered by Rudolph Bultmann. This theory asserts that the Gospels are mainly about the faith of the early Church and the historical Jesus never actually existed.

Bultmann defined an almost complete split between history and faith, writing that only the bare fact of Christ crucified was necessary for Christian faith (see, for example Bultmann, R., The History of the Synoptic Tradition, (Basil Blackwell, Oxford,1963). Whilst Dei Verbum fully endorses the view that the Gospels were subject to the process of ‘synthesis’, ‘selection’, and ‘explication’ that has been demonstrated in this essay, asserting that the Gospels hands on faithfully:

“…what Jesus Christ, while living among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation until the day He was taken up into heaven” DV 19. 
The question of New Testament historicity is dealt with head on in the renowned Biblical Scholar & Hermeneuticist the Very Rev Dr. John Redford’s work Catholicism: Hard Questions in which (with specific reference to Dei Verbum, ¶ 19) he explains that the ‘synthesis’, ‘selection’, and ‘explication’ of the Gospels was possible because of ‘the fuller insight which they [the first Christians] now possessed’ (i.e. after the resurrection). Redford goes on to suggest that it seems probable that the Gospels have had a developed history from the initial traditions about Jesus to their final literary form, while, as Dei Verbum says ‘preserving the honest truth about Jesus’ (See Redford, J., Catholicism: Hard Questions (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1997) pp.31-34.)

When understood in this context it seems clear that, the evident theological 'shaping' and differences in the Synoptic Gospels, far from diminishing their trustworthiness, actually provide evidence of the ardent faith of the authors and their desire to demonstrate the reality of the incarnation, the relevance of the kērygma for all people and the truth about Jesus life and mission.
Bibliography

Dodd, C.H., History and the Gospel, (Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1938).
Cantalamessa, R., Remember Jesus Christ, (The Word Among US Press, Maryland, USA, 2007).
Ratzinger, J, An Introduction to Christianity, (Ignatius, San Francisco, 2004).
Best, E., Mark The Gospel as Story (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1983).
Bertram, J., People of the Gospel, (Family Publications, Oxford, 2006).
Bultmann, R., The History of the Synoptic Tradition, (Basil Blackwell, Oxford,1963).
Redford, J. Catholicism: Hard Questions (Geoffrey Chapman, London, 1997).



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